THE EAGLES have twice been left for dead since leaves fell to the ground in Pennsylvania. Four days before Thanksgiving their embattled, face-of-the-franchise quarterback was benched at halftime of an embarrassing loss to the Ravens, an act that smelled like concession to the future. Five weeks after that, to land a wild-card berth, they needed not only to beat the Cowboys on the last day of the season but also for the Bears to lose to the Texans and, most improbably, for the Buccaneers to fall at home to the hapless Raiders—a combination that defines desperation. "At that point you're thinking, Most likely it's over," recalls Philadelphia wideout Reggie Brown. "I mean, you have to be realistic."
Yet here the Eagles stand, alive and dangerous in the NFL's final eight. On Sunday at Giants Stadium, they will try to take down the defending Super Bowl champions, an NFC East rival whom they beat a month ago at the same venue. They earned the rematch by opening the playoffs with a 26--14 win over the NFC North champion Vikings on Sunday in the Metrodome, a workmanlike performance by a veteran team in a hostile setting, one quickly put aside as players looked ahead to a rare opportunity. Half an hour after the win in Minneapolis, Brian Dawkins, the Eagles' 35-year-old free safety, stuffed gear into a small travel pack in the visitors' dressing room. "It's the Eagles. And the Giants. A rivalry game in the playoffs," said Dawkins. "You bring big shoulder pads to that game. You come prepared."
On the first Sunday of December, a typically raw Meadowlands afternoon, the Eagles manhandled the Giants in a 20--14 win. They gained 140 yards on the ground and held proud and physical New York to 88 rushing yards on 24 attempts. The Giants did not score an offensive touchdown until less than two minutes remained. It was not close, but New York also had no shortage of valid excuses. The game was the Giants' first since they'd suspended troubled wideout Plaxico Burress after a bizarre incident in which he shot himself in a Manhattan nightclub; in addition, bruising tailback Brandon Jacobs was hobbled and left in the third quarter.
"I'm pretty sure after that loss the Giants didn't feel too good," said Dawkins. "We're going to go in this week and look at film, but there won't be any surprises. They're not a tricky team. [ Tom Coughlin] isn't a tricky coach. Here's what we do; try to stop us. That's how they won the Super Bowl. That's the way you play them."
In all corners of the locker room Eagles looked ahead. Right guard Nick Cole said, "With the Giants, you've got to respect that defense; you can never let up with those guys." Jim Johnson, Philadelphia's esteemed 67-year-old defensive coordinator, who runs a fierce, blitz-heavy scheme, promised to bring the heat. "With them," he said, "it's all about getting pressure on Eli [Manning]."
There was scant analysis of the Minnesota win, yet it should be noted: The Eagles made efficient work of a stubborn opponent. Johnson's pressure schemes forced Tarvaris Jackson into 15-for-35 passing and a dreadful second-quarter interception that cornerback Asante Samuel returned 44 yards for a score to give the Eagles a 16--7 lead. And while Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson broke a 40-yard cutback run for a second-quarter TD, he had only 43 yards on 19 other carries.
The Eagles' killing score came on a 71-yard screen to Brian Westbrook with 6:37 to play. Cole plowed through two defenders to clear a path; in the final 20 yards Westbrook was escorted by wideouts DeSean Jackson and Kevin Curtis. The pass, of course, was delivered by Donovan McNabb, the 32-year-old quarterback whose brief and bizarre November stay in coach Andy Reid's doghouse is not only the latest drama in a career defined by them but also the fulcrum on which Philly's season turned. "Things happened, things were talked about," says offensive tackle Tra Thomas. "We came together as a team."
On Nov. 23 the 5-4-1 Eagles, fresh from an ugly 13--13 tie with the lowly Bengals, trailed Baltimore 10--7 at halftime. McNabb had completed eight of 18 passes and thrown two interceptions, and Reid instructed quarterbacks coach Pat Shurmur to tell McNabb that second-year backup Kevin Kolb would start the third quarter. ( Kolb was every bit as bad—just 10 for 23 with two picks—in the 36--7 loss.)
After the game Reid said, "Sometimes with a player you can step back an inch and maybe you can go forward a mile." Indeed, McNabb started the next week, and the Eagles have won five of six since, including a 44--6 rout of Dallas on the last Sunday of the season, just after Chicago and Tampa Bay had both lost. If Reid was seeking to shake up his quarterback and his team, it worked. "He could have benched anybody in that Baltimore game, but I don't think he would have gotten his message across by benching the left guard," says Todd Herremans, the left guard. "Since that game everybody has picked it up."
Not the least McNabb. Through the first half of the Ravens' game he had thrown 14 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. Since then he has 10 TDs with just two picks. On Sunday he threw for 300 yards in the face of Minnesota's aggressive pass rush. "For a while there we didn't know what was going on upstairs," says Brown. "Donovan responded. When the quarterback responds, usually the team responds."